"It is very dangerous to know anybody's complete thoughts, and I would never recommend the disillusioning experience... Every one of us is a complicated, ever-shifting blend of good and bad. We allow only what is presentable to appear on the surface and have an instinct for what will show us in a favourable light. This extends to our most appallingly sincere confession of defects, shortcomings, vice, crime, and seems to be uncontrollable…”
Title: The Wandering Unicorn (El Unicornio)
Publication: 1982, Taplinger Books, ISBN 0800880412
Author: Manuel Mujica Lainez
Translator: Mary Fitton
Foreword: Jorge Luis Borges
Notes: Short-listed for the World Fantasy Award in 1984 along with novels such as Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Jack Vance’s Lyonesse; lost out to John M Ford’s The Dragon Waiting
Herodotus of Histories, Father of History (or, perhaps, Father of Lies), may have been the first to understand the curious idea of history being fiction encased by fact, or fact glorified by fiction. Perhaps he did not know, and merely related the stories told to him that seemed to make the greatest sense; in any case, the result is enthralling. In events where miracles happen and gods walk the earth, the reader is left to merely accept such things; to not do so would be unthinkable.
Manuel Mujica Lainez, despite his relative anonymity among those acquainted with only the English language, was an esteemed author in his native Argentina. He was well acquainted with other Spanish authors, and communicated frequently with famous authors and poets: Jorge Luis Borges, Victoria Ocampo, Gabriela Mistral. The largest source of his writings can be found at Princeton University. For those familiar with South American writers, his works would be classified in the set of “magic realism”, sharing space with venerable authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, though it is not wholly limited to South Americans; Mikhail Bulgakov (Master and Margarita, Heart of a Dog) also comes to mind. The Wandering Unicorn, true to the genre of magic realism, is ambitious, history and fantasy entwined as one, neither one outpacing the other; one could read these romantic histories as “glowing dream(s) set in the past.” Translators, as anyone who has read the works of Haruki Murakami, or perhaps Fyodor Dostoyevsky, know, are as important to the story as the author; perhaps even more so, and Mary Fitton gives the translation a frank, straightforward interpretation, choosing adjectives with masterly precision.
“It is a fairy’s life, a fairy story. Anyone who doesn’t believe in fairies had better shut these pages here and now and throw them into the wastepaper basket, or cut them up to line his bookshelves, and very expensive that will be. Not only will he be rejecting the evident truth that nothing, absolutely nothing, is explicable in this mysterious world, but, in his antiquated Victorian skepticism (and this without disrespect to a monarch I revere), he will miss some interesting things, and I am sorry for him. Of the many ways of being poor in spirit, and dismissing the earth as a dull sort of place, perhaps the stupidest is to say no to the hidden relish that gives life that touch of magic.”
It is the most basic story of all. The main character is Melusine, a fairy woman cursed with immortality and invisibility (as ephemeral as an angel or a dream), who falls in love with a mortal, a tragedy along the lines of the Greek Selene and Endymion. Those familiar with French mythology might recognize the fairy as the famous Melusine, Mere Lusine (Mother Lusine, a name derived from a Roman goddess) or Mere Lusignan (Mother of Lusignan). The House of Lusignan claimed to be descended from her (and many French families today still do). A serpent woman or a dragon in the guise of a woman, Melusine is considered the benefactor and protector the Lusignan line, and it is from this premise that the story springs from. Lainez briefly recounts the story of Melusine by way of introduction, but the bulk part of the story occurs during the Crusades. The narrative is in the first-person format, from Melusine’s point of view.
The mortal boy, Aiol, is a bastard born out of the chaotic Crusades; he is, incidentally enough, one of the descendants from the House of Lusignan (Melusine makes a remark that is remarkably optimistic about the notions of this incestuous sin: “Have we another proof that God’s justice is forever beyond our comprehension?. . . does Omnipotence think a misplaced love, such as Aiol inspired in (Azelais), as black a sin as murder? I am not competent to resolve the question, for my values are not those which, under divine wisdom, apply to the human race. For me, if I may venture to say so, love in any form wipes out guilt.”). Aiol will follow his father’s footsteps as a soldier of the Crusades, heading toward Jerusalem in full pursuit to find the treasure his father originally sought: the Lance of the Savior, also known as the Lance of Longinus. Melusine, out of love for Aiol, pursues him knowing full well that Aiol will die the moment he finds what he is seeking.
Aiol carries a token of his father’s, a lance made out of the unicorn horn. The title of the novel does not stem so much from the object as much as the symbolism; the unicorn both as the untouchable, and as the allegory of Love in all forms: the pure (the symbolism of Jesus Christ or innocence) and the impure (Leonardo da Vinci’s interpretation, where the unicorn is driven by lust to lay itself in the virgin girl’s lap); in either case, it ends the same way, as love always hunted by others. Melusine’s pursuit of Aiol is no different; she finds herself seeking a thing that may or may not be real, as fervently as an alchemist for the Philosopher’s Stone. At Pleurs, she is granted the chance to be a human so that she may accompany Aiol; when she takes the chance, she does so, not realizing she will not wake up in a body of a woman, but that of a man…
A large part of its charm comes from the seamless blending of the real and the surreal. Characters known from history, such as the Leper King Baldwin IV, or Guy of Lusignan, are painted neatly and realistically, given more homage in this novel than any history book of Crusades would ever give. The fictional characters of Aiol and Melusine are given the same treatment, and together, it is easy to see how religion and history mix with politics and superstition. History and fairy tale entwine hand in hand in Melusine’s narrative: she speaks as frankly of King Arthur and the Isle of Avalon as she does of Humphrey of Toron’s future marriage to Isabella, noting the femininity of Humphrey in passing (one of the few unnecessary facts that history preserves). A moderately well-read reader would be pleased – charmed, even - at the way the author spends his homage; as Melusine writes this story during “modern” times, she makes reference to Jung and Freud, to Odel Shepherd (author of “The Lore of the Unicorn”, quite possibly the most complete treatise you’ll ever read about unicorns) and the Cloister Museums of NYC.
“The King’s dying. Dying like a saint, with the future of his Jerusalem weighing on his mind. His sisters have to be married without delay. One for Guy of Lusignan, I hear, and the other, the baby—“
“The barons say—for me.”
His smile was more pronounced, and I seemed to see her there, among the disgraceful khawals prostrate on their carpets: the small figure who held her mother’s hand when we paid homage to Baldwin at the palace. . . A defenseless doll, to be given to the equally artificial Humphrey! I could not guess what her fate would be: she would marry him, but their union would be dissolved, since he was clearly unable to consummate it. With the staunchness of her century, she would marry again, and again, and again; and of her four husbands, only this effete, mild-mannered Humphrey of Toron, who presented me with a pretty string of turquoises, was never King of Jerusalem. He was debilitated by the life he chosen, and she was tougher than he. At that time, however, I thought sadly of a doll-princess in gold brocade, and of the grievous destiny of royal ladies born to be the sport of politics or of ambitious men.”
Conversation between Humphrey of Toron and Melusin of Pleurs
And, as all histories and stories must, things do not end happily or sadly, but just are: “but that is how God willed it.”
Lainez, Manuel Mujica, The Wandering Unicorn
World Fantasy listing, http://www.worldfantasy.org